From the monthly archives:

July 2022

Sunday photoblogging: morning shadows in Pézenas

by Chris Bertram on July 31, 2022



Conferences, Covid, Climate

by John Quiggin on July 28, 2022

As borders reopen and Covid-related restrictions are relaxed, lots of academics are celebrating the return of in-person conferences. I’m not one of them. Although I miss a lot of aspects of conferences, I’ve tried to avoid indoor meetings since the pandemic began, and there’s no reason to change that yet. And with the climate disaster getting worse all the time, I want to minimise, or at least reduce, air travel.
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Sunday photoblogging: Bouzigues

by Chris Bertram on July 24, 2022


The Kosovo precedent

by John Quiggin on July 22, 2022

In the early days of the Ukraine invasion, one of the main lines pushed by Putin’s defenders was that the expansion of NATO posed a threat to Russia and that Ukraine was about to join. This didn’t stand up to even momentary scrutiny. The Baltic States had been members since 2004 without doing anything to threaten Russia.

And while Ukraine’s constitution included a goal of joining NATO, Zelenskiy was describing this as a ‘remote dream’ even before the invasion took place, and clearly indicated willingness to abandon the idea in return for peace.

But there is an important sense in which NATO shares responsibility for this disaster. The US intervention in Kosovo, including the bombing of Belgrade, was undertaken by NATO, to avoid the need to get the support of the UN Security Council, where Russia had a veto. This was a substantial breach of international law, followed by a much bigger breach in the invasion of Iraq.

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When I first found out that the UK Treasury proposes to issue Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) as part of a general push to make Britain a world centre for crypto-currency, I assumed that this was a Boris Johnson stunt. The obvious model is El Salvador, where Johnson-style demagogue Nayib Bukele has made Bitcoin legal tender, with results ranging from disappointing to disastrous depending on who you read.

It turns out, however, that the source of the push is Rishi Sunak, until recently Chancellor of the Exchequer and now the favourite to become Prime Minister when Johnson leaves office. I don’t know anything about Sunak, but assumed on the basis of his job title that he would be a believer in “sound money”, hostile to, or at least sceptical of dodgy innovations like crypto.

I’m not fully on top of the issue yet, and would welcome clarifications from anyone better informed. It appears that Sunak is at least as confused as I am, and is pushing different, contradictory proposals.

The first to emerge, in 2021, was the idea of a central bank digital currency (CBDC). Such a development, would, in my view be kryptonite for crypto as it now exists, providing all the supposed benefits with none of the energy waste, scams and volatility we now observe. A CBDC would have radical implications which are still being discussed. In particularit, in effect, allow households and businesses to bank directly with the central bank, rather than holding digital deposits in existing banks. If successful enough, it could amount to nationalisation of the banking sector.

Unsurprisingly, banks and their advocates hate this idea. Here’s a critique from the Cato Institute, pointing to the likelihood that a CBDC would “give the central bank and the politicians that set its mandate the tools to much more easily manipulate economic activity.” pointing

It looks as if the predictable opposition of the UK financial sector has killed off the CBDC idea. Instead, Sunak has been pushing proposals to put the UK at the centre of the existing crypto market. Strikingly, it’s the dodgiest forms of crypto (NFTs and “stablecoins”), that are being pushed hardest.

As I’ve argued in the past, the fact that something as provably valueless as Bitcoin is now an accepted part of the financial system is evidence that any claims about the efficiency of financial markets are indefensible. The same can now be said about the idea that the UK Conservative party stands for sound economic management.

Sunday photoblogging: Lac du Salagou

by Chris Bertram on July 17, 2022

Lac du Salagou

What to do about climate change (1): Not too late

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 17, 2022

“The fact of the matter is: we are in the decade of decision. What we do in the Twenties will determine the fate of the Earth for centuries and millenia to come. And there’s a lot we can do – we can speed the transition away from fossil fuels, losen the death grip of the fossil fuel industry on our government and the world’s energy supplies, build the renewables, protect the soil and the forests, and support all the incredible movements that have already done so much so far, and have ambitions to do exactly what we need to do.” (Rebecca Solnit, Start Making Sense Clips, July 14th)

Yesterday, I discussed with some international colleagues chapter 4 of my book-in-progress on the problems with extreme wealth. That chapter looks at the links between wealth concentration and the ecological and environmental crisis, and ends up offering multiple ecological arguments for economic limitarianism. I open the chapter with a few pages that make it clear that climate change is not a future worry but that it has arrived, and that time is of the essence. Given that global emissions are not coming down yet and that the remaining carbon budget (to stay below 1,5 degrees or even 2 degrees) is very limited, we need to act fast and in a drastic manner. There is no time to go slow, and no time to merely fiddle in the margins.

It doesn’t make for joyful reading, yet most of what I describe that made my colleagues gloomy was merely factual. The facts simply show that matters are very bad and the situation urgent. But that is no reason to despair, since there are various feasible plans for curbing the emissions and speeding up the green transition, and various groups and movements that one can join in order to contribute. The main problems are political, and problems of power. Perhaps we should simply talk much more about what can be done, and what we can concretely do, rather than either deny that climate change is happening (thought that group seems to be shrinking), ignore that it is happening, or believe it is beyond our powers to do anything.

Two years ago I was invited to write a short piece for WWF’s Living Planet Report and argued precisely this – when it comes to the climate crisis, we need to see ourselves first of all as citizens and unite and act as such.

In that spirit, I was delighted to come across a new initiative from Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua, called Not Too Late. They want to encourage everyone to join the climate movement, to act as citizens to force politics to establish structural solutions, and to share stories about what climate movements are achieving. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Bristol underpass

by Chris Bertram on July 10, 2022

Underpass to Old Market

Following up my initial response to Lane Kenworthy, I decided to approach the question from a different direction and ask “Would we be better off without corporations?”. That is, I’d like to consider a society in which all large enterprises were publicly owned. To be clear, I’m talking about corporations in the ordinary sense of the term, with large numbers of shareholders and employees, not about the (relatively recent) use of company structures to produce tax benefits and limited liability for small businesses. There would still be room for owner-operated private businesses, worker-controlled co-operatives, partnerships and perhaps some other forms of business I haven’t thought about.

I won’t get into disputes about whether this would constitute socialism, except to say that it would be radically different from any version of capitalism we’ve seen so far.I’m also going to reverse the burden of proof implicit in Kenworthy’s approach. I start from the assumption that the expansion of corporate power under the neoliberal (or market liberal) policy package of privatisation, financialisation and deunionisation that has prevailed since the 1970s has been bad for most of us.

Given that neoliberalism is a term that’s often used loosely, I’ll try to be more specific about the adverse effects that can be tied specifically to the resurgence of corporate power.

The most obvious is the growth in inequality that has coincided with the rise of neoliberalism and corporate power. Virtually every aspect of neoliberal policy reform from increasing capital mobility to union-busting to flattening of tax scales has contributed to increased inequality. Moreover, they all reinforce each other.
?So, if we can do without for-profit corporations without incurring significant economic costs, we should.

I started looking at this on a sector-by-sector basis but then realised I would need to write a whole book in reply. So, over the fold, some disorganized thoughts
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Settling in for the long haul

by Maria on July 5, 2022

A couple of tweets flicked across my screen in the past week or so from people I don’t know asking how, perhaps a year or two in, the knowledge settles across your shoulders that you’re not recovering from long covid and may not ever fully recover, you, well, deal? No surprise; I have thoughts and feelings about this. But, surprise (to me anyway); the series of moments when it seeps into your bones that no one and nothing is coming to rescue you are emotionally just really fucking hard, and I’ve shied away from thinking too much about this period of my life. Partly because I read the tweets from these people who may have this and far worse ahead of them, and I don’t want to make any of it the tiniest, least perceptible bit harder. But also because that time for me was a long interstitial of brain fog and denial, hopes raised and dashed, chasing after a doctor or a programme or sure fire cure of some kind and just being repeatedly floored by disappointment while slowly realising I was no longer, really, a person in the world, a person with friends and fun and any kind of over-arching telos in my life, and partly because I HATE stories that resolve with ‘I just had to get used to it and when I did, things didn’t get better but I felt slightly better about them.’

Reader, I just had to get used to it.

This will be a digressive piece. I come at these things and flit away, a bit like the tweets that flash up from people saying stuff like ‘my parents are starting to believe the doctors and are telling me it’s psychological, I just don’t want to be well, I have literally nowhere else to go.’ I mean, what do you do with that? You can say, well, this is a mass disabling event, there are so many more of you now that even doctors are staying sick and occasionally even saying ‘ok it’s real now even I get it’, so there’s more chance you’ll be believed and hundreds of times more money going into real research than did for the last couple of decades. But that’s not going to help the college student who’s returned home to a stalled life and a support system that seemed encompassing at first, but which is now coldly, methodically, pulling its arms away when the kid doesn’t recover in a socially acceptable period of time. (And that scenario, to be fair, is still the Cadillac of long covid support systems.)
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Would Democratic Socialism be Better?

by John Quiggin on July 5, 2022

(Reposted, as I previously forgot to open comments)

I’ve just received a copy of Lane Kenworthy’s latest back Would Democratic Socialism be Better (Shorter LK: “capitalism, and particularly social democratic capitalism, is better
than many democratic socialists seem to think”).

The book is a follow-up to his Social Democratic Capitalism, which made the case that the USA would be better off moving to a Nordic model of social democracy.

I’m hoping to make a longer response soon, but I thought I’d begin by summing up the argument as I see it, and the reasons I’m unconvinced.

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How to write a good public philosophy book

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 4, 2022

As I might have mentioned here before, I am currently working on a book (provisionally) entitled Limitarianism. The Case Against Extreme Wealth. It will be what publishers call a trade book – that is, written for any reader of nonfiction. I’ve been doing this kind of writing (and talks) in Dutch for much longer; this book I write in English. It will be published by Astra House for North-America, and by Allen Lane/Penguin for the UK and the rest of the world (with translations also in Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish, Korean, Japanese and Russian).

As I am also engaged in academic-philosophical debates on limitarianism, it is striking to see what is considered relevant and important in each of those strands of writing. Some pre-occupations by academic philosophers are of little or no importance to the public, such as whether argument A for limitarianism is truly distinct from argument B, or whether limitarianism can be reduced to (a combination of) other distributive principles. For the public the most important question is whether this is an idea that makes sense, and some philosophical preoccupations are about other (more technical) issues. On the other hand, in my experience the public cares a lot about some things that many philosophers find irrelevant, such as what we can learn from the empirical facts (e.g. about the urgency of a problem, or whether a proposed intervention has ever worked in the past), and what a general (or abstract) discussion implies in a concrete context. Academic discussions can be at a level of abstractness that will make you lose most of your readers of nonfiction, even of serious nonfiction.

What else would make a public [political] philosophy book good? Here are my thoughts on this. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Montpellier pigeon

by Chris Bertram on July 3, 2022

Montpellier Pigeon

Ousmane Sembène, Les Bouts de bois de Dieu

by Chris Bertram on July 1, 2022

More than forty years ago, before I went to university, I was living in Paris and became an “organized sympathiser”, a candidate for membership, of the Trotskyist sect Lutte Ouvrière. The training for people like me consisted, of course, of reading some Marxist classics, but also of making one’s way through a list of novels that included, as I recall, Zola’s Germinal, Christiane Rochefort’s Les Stances à Sophie, Malraux’s Les Conquérants and La Condition Humaine, Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, London’s The Iron Heel and certainly some others that I forget. One of the books that I never got round to was Ousmane Sembène’s Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, and I had more or less forgotten about it until a contact on social media with whom I share many mutual friends reported reading it after a trip to Senegal. So I thought I would give it a go.

It is one of the most remarkable novels I have read in the past several years and deserves to be widely knows as a classic. It is an epic constructed somewhat in the manner of a great Russian novel (think of Grossman’s Life and Fate, for example) and centres on a strike of African railway workers, against the French rail company and the colonial administration in 1947-8. The strikers are poor, many of them are illiterate, they are Muslims, many are in polygamous families and they are regarded by the French as savages and by their religious leaders as people who ought to be grateful and know their place. Yet they have their dignity and cannot accept that they are worth less than the whites who work on the railway, that they should have no entitlement to family support, or to a pension in their old age. So they strike, heedless of the advice of their elders who had done the same ten years before.
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